Is Racism Really This Blind?

images-3UPDATE:  10 members of Congress call on the team to change their name.

U.S. trademark law says that there is no commercial protection for a disparaging term or symbol.  In 1992, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board agreed that “Redskins” may disparage people, living or dead, or bring them into contempt or disrepute.  Since then, schools across the country such as St. John’s and Tallequa changed names away from Native American epithets like the “Redmen.”  The NFL team, however, had this decision reversed after the court ruled that these plaintiffs waited too long after they turned 18, the age of majority.

The issue is back, and this time the plaintiffs are teenagers.  The nonchalant treatment of this story makes me think of how quickly people are to dismiss or overlook racism.  From the comfort of one’s home, they utter things like the injustices caused Native Americans are long passed, and there is nothing I can do about it now.  While they root for RG III and the resurgent Washington Redskins on Sunday afternoon.  While the poverty level, and resources, on Reservations is abysmal.  While lawsuits over mineral rights continue in the courts.

images-4The football team has recently been deemed as the second-most valuable NFL franchise, worth nearly $2 billion, generating revenues over $350 million annually.

Is there a dispute that the term “Redskin” is a racial epithet?  There is no indication it ever became anything other than such.  All the Super Bowls and all the Quentin Tarrantino films will never turn a slur into an acceptable label, no matter how common the usage.  People aren’t out on the Rez saying, “Yo, what up Redskin?”  Nobody of Native American heritage ever introduced themselves as a Redskin.

images-5In 1967, when the Washington, D.C. football team chose their name, Native Americans around the country were politically active.  During that era, the American Indian Movement occupied Alcatraz Island, Mt. Rushmore, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in D.C.  The AIM banners did not have Redskins.  These activists were, like many others, fighting for equal rights in this country- and also reparations for what had been taken away by force and by fraud.

In 1971, the Golden State Warriors eliminated Native American imagery from their nickname and in 1989 the Kansas City Chiefs stopped with the Indian-on-a-Horse gimmick.  The 1992 Super Bowl in Minneapolis, a city with one of the largest Native American populations, included a protest about the football team from D.C. who went on to win the game.

If the Washington, D.C. football team wishes to honor people of local history, perhaps they can find a word for the slave labor that built much of the District, including the Capitol and Supreme Court.  But as the judge in the current trademark case said, the team can call themselves the Washington N-word with nothing but honorable intentions and still be subject to scrutiny.  The fact that the “Redskins” are in our nation’s capital makes it all the more offensive, whereas the near-genocide of this continent’s original people should be a wrong that deserves righting, not ridicule.

Even Southern nicknames, like the Runnin’ Rebels, can make a case for honoring the people who fought for their land, regardless of how pure their motives.  We don’t see the Tennessee “Damn Yankees” or the Massachusetts “Klansmen.”  UMass, incidentally, are the “Minutemen.”  Similarly, the New England “Patriots” use an honorable word as pride in local history.  Nobody is called the “Tories,” in honor of those who supported the British.

It seems to me that the most distinct Native American nickname, the U. of North Dakota Fighting Sioux, is arguably cast in an honorable light.  Although some Native Sioux supported the name, the state’s voters overwhelmingly decided to drop it in 2012.  This is after the NCAA began sanctioning the school, and there were repercussions looming from their conference.  Might a similar fate be in store for Florida Atlantic Owls, after selling their stadium naming rights to a for-profit prison corporation?  The stadium is already labeled “Owlcatraz.”  (Pretty witty, you must admit.)

North Dakota responded to action taken in 2005 by the NCAA to attempt an eradication of names it considers hostile or abusive.  The list included the Braves, Fighting Illini, Seminoles, Chippewas, Utes, and Indians.  Interestingly, none of these terms are as disparaging as “Redskins,” and the NCAA chose to exempt North Carolina-Pembroke because, historically, 20% of their students are Native Americans.  Central Michigan’s team was removed from the list after the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Nation gave its support, as did the Seminoles, Utes, and Choctaws.

Ironically, Oklahoma is most populous of Native Americans, their teams are named after Sooners (who came to get the “free” land “liberated” from Native ownership) and Cowboys- not the Indians.  Southeastern Oklahoma State was the “Savages,” but changed to the “Savage Storm.”  Washington, D.C.’s connection to Indians: Broken Treaties and the War Department that ordered continual confrontations and building a series of military outposts to expand West and South.  There is no tribe that can give its blessing to “Redskins.”

strongbow213aSeveral states now have laws barring Native American mascots.  In 1994, the St. John’s Redmen became the Red Storm.  Two years later, the Miami (OH) Redskins became the Red Hawks; a change they had contemplated since 1972.  Making the change has not ended their existence.

There are no nicknames like the “Blackies,” “Yellowmen,” or “Crackers.”  And there should not be.  Would the “Berlin Kikes” be okay in another 100 years?  No.  Claiming ownership of another culture’s symbols, and then to say it is honoring them despite their protests against this “honor,” is racism.  War paint is like back-face.  Foam tomahawks and spears, along with beers, is denigration.

An amicus brief by the NFL Players Association, supporting the trademark cancellation, would not be out of the question.

Unlike the Vikings and the Spartans, Native Americans are living with us among the diverse fabric of our nation.  People have a right to decide how they will be characterized and not be rendered into caricatures.  If a corporation arguably has a right to trademark someone else’s cultural symbols (which I am not certain they do), the Lanham Act certainly outlaws such names and symbols that are disrespectful.

tomahawk_tony0002_2Just because millions of people may be unaware of history does not absolve the insult upon those who know, particularly those who are impacted.

About Bruce Reilly

Bruce Reilly is the Deputy Director of Voice of the Ex-Offender in New Orleans, LA. He is a graduate of Tulane Law School and author of NewJack's Guide to the Big House. Much of his writing can be found on
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